We were down at the dog park the other day, and Molly, as is her habit, made the rounds of all the people there. She gets attention by throwing her head back and calling out an insistent “Woo-Woo!” People turn toward her and want to pet the pretty, fluffy dog. You can tell when she smells treats on a new person, because she immediately goes into a very proper “Sit” and looks them intently in the eye. Other people get the walk-through treatment: she tries to walk between their legs, hoping to get her back scratched. There are some people Molly finds especially likeable. Those people get “The Paws of Love,” as Molly sits back on her haunches and puts both front paws up in her version of an embrace.
The water has been turned off for the winter at the Valley Street Dog Park, and dog owners are bringing water down in gallon jugs to share. As Molly and Sam were getting a drink from the common bowls, a couple of banged-up old pots, I began thinking about the Canine Flu. Dog owners are already arguing about the best response to this flu that has already been found in large kennels and at racetracks. Should dog shows be avoided? And what about dog parks?
Suppose Molly had to spend the winter at home, with no new people to meet and greet, only the family to embrace with “The Paws of Love?” The beauty of those paws is how indiscriminately they are offered: to old friends and perfect strangers, to men or to women, without regard to age, race or fashion sense. It’s sad to think of Molly tucked away safely, because going down to the dog park would mean loving dangerously.
You can hardly turn on the television or pick up the newspaper without hearing about the possibility of an avian flu pandemic. A swan in Eastern Europe, a parrot in Great Britain, children in southeast Asia—each day there are new stories about the potential for spreading this potentially deadly flu around the world. What would we do if faced with a flu pandemic? Perhaps we would be placed under quarantine. Sales of surgical masks and rubber gloves would soar.
Dr. Grattan Woodson, author of a booklet called Preparing for the Coming Influenza Pandemic, tells us to expect not to be able to go to the store or to work, to visualize hospitals so full of patients and short of staff that you wouldn’t want to be in one anyway. He makes a list of the things any family would need to cope with serious illness when professional medical care isn’t readily accessible and gives instructions about keeping the ill person hydrated, the most important thing of all for a flu patient. Most importantly, he tells the caregiver, “Caring for severely ill flu patients is something that everyone is capable of doing. You can do this. No medical skill is required. . .they need to be comforted and told that they are going to be OK and reassured that you will be there for them.”
The most important thing we could give is care. Our most important act would be to love.
All the great religions put an emphasis on care for those who need it most. Devotion to God and care for others form the foundation for a life of faith. They provide a rule for living, and living them provides ongoing revelation. We learn more about how to love God and love one another simply by doing those very things.
In an epidemic, basic care for the sick is an urgent need. Do we feel that urgency when it comes to loving our neighbors on the average day?
Molly does! I often wonder what made her that way. She is naturally winsome and charming and affectionate, so in part it’s her nature. As a puppy, she came to live with me, and I like to go places and always stop to speak to people; her environment reinforced her natural tendencies. Most of all, greeting people with love and enthusiasm is her rule for life; it is her practice. It is both who she is and what she does.
Can we be like that? It means throwing caution and prejudice to the winds. It means living and loving dangerously, knowing that we may not be loved in return by other people. To do it, we need to peel off the gloves and throw away the masks that keep us “safe” and separate from other people. We need to admit to being God’s people when we aren’t tucked safely away with people who would say the same. We need to be ready to infect and be infected in a pandemic of love. Such an epidemic would change the world.
“The Paws of Love” would be universal, and our healing would be assured.
Updated to add: This is a selection from this morning’s sermon and also a draft of my next reflection column for the local paper. Feedback appreciated.